Gemma Owen is the dressage rider who has become, arguably, the most talked-about contestant on Love Island 2022. The reality romance show, which airs six nights a week on ITV2, is just four episodes in, and already the online gossip is rife among viewers and in the press.
Gemma, it’s fair to say, has been at the centre of much of this gossip – at just 19 years old, and with former England footballer Michael Owen for a father, she was always going to attract attention outside the villa as well as within it. And then there’s her job, as an international dressage rider.
Every rider knows the difficulties in educating those outside the horse world about our sport, and of all the equestrian disciplines, dressage is understandably the hardest for most people to get their heads around. Yet social licence and public perception of the sport is more important now than ever.
As grand prix rider and trainer Anna Ross says in her upcoming 16 June column, “It’s possible Gemma Owen has done more to raise awareness and bring the job title “international dressage rider” to the UK public in one episode of Love Island than the entire annual marketing budget of British Dressage.”
But without sufficient understanding, publicity can serve the wrong purpose. Certainly Gemma’s famous father and privileged upbringing will have done nothing to help dispel the image of dressage as an elitist sport. But I was horrified to read Gemma’s dressage career being picked apart in the national tabloid media in the most cruel and unjustified manner.
Gemma Owen is an international dressage rider – she has competed on the world stage representing Great Britain, with 38 international starts. She is completely truthful in saying that she has travelled around Europe competing in big arenas; her being a “dressage champion” is a status bestowed on her by others.
It should be noted that she has not, as yet, competed internationally as a senior rider – her FEI career has so far been in pony and junior ranks – but let us not forget that she is only 19. Her selection for the British team at the junior European Championships in 2021 is a tremendous achievement, as is her championship score of 67.8% with the 17-year-old gelding Sirius Black.
Nationally, Gemma has competed up to inter I. Of the 10 levels available in affiliated dressage, this is the eighth highest, two below grand prix, which is ridden at the Olympics. Earlier this year, aged 18, she scored over 73% at prix st georges, one rung down from inter I. Very few riders make it to this level, even fewer will score over 70% once they get there – and fewer still while in their teens. And, contrary to popular opinion, no amount of money will elevate you far up the dressage ladder if you lack the talent and work ethic required.
I couldn’t help but wonder if Gemma’s sporting CV would have received such ignorant rapping if she had been a youth footballer, or tennis player, for example. Quite apart from the public acceptance those sports enjoy, in a football or tennis match, you either win or you lose. Success in dressage, a scored sport which can see 50 or more starters in any one class, is far more nuanced. Critics would do well to invest time researching the measures of success in such a sport before labelling a sportsperson’s achievements as “lame”.
I worry about the dangerous effect this sort of inaccurate and uneducated commentary could have on Gemma or other riders. I also wonder whether horse sport will ever shake off its elitist image, or whether the media will continue to perpetuate this narrative knowing it will prove divisive among the public, and therefore lucrative.
Part of the problem is that, unlike football, tennis or swimming for example, most people have little personal experience or connection with horses. It’s something of a catch-22: increasing affordable routes into the sport is hugely important, but for many, equestrianism simply does not resonate or appeal, often due to misguided impressions.
Therefore, to me it seems that educating, enlightening and sharing the reality of our wonderful sport and those in it, is the best tool we have at our disposal.
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